I have, as usual, been wasting my weeknights watching Comedy Central shows. In an odd enough twist of fate, not one but two shows dealt with rape as a central premise for jokes in the fresh new season. Loath as I am to say this usually, South Park got it wrong. And if you can believe this, The Sarah Silverman Program got it right. Let me explain these things one at a time.
South Park: DOING IT WRONG
The season premiere of South Park opened on Cartman having nightmares about the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, and raving to his friends the next morning, that the Chinese were going to take over. Kyle started and then said he couldn't do this today, Stan reminded Kyle that he was supposed to call Cartman "racist or something," and Kyle went home. For a glorious moment, I thought they were going to break the Fourth Wall. But alas, no.
The reason Kyle couldn't deal with Cartman today is because he had not been able to get over (apparently) witnessing the rape of his friend. For about five minutes we suffer, wondering who got raped. (Was it Butters? C'mon, it's always Butters.) Kyle has a horrible flashback which depicts to boys in a movie theater and we finally see who it was who was "raped": Indiana Jones. The boys run screaming out of the theater, one of them vomiting on the pavement outside and wailing things such as, "Aliens don't belong in an Indiana Jones movie!" And, alright, whatever, it's cool and "edgy" these days to use the word "rape" in that context, and the buildup was alright. There were a few throwaway gags that were actually, you know, funny, such as the good ol' Lifetime Rape Movie of the Week cliche of staring out into the sunset on a lake while talking about it in the most overwrought way possible. And this was, alright, not Trey and Matt's best work, but not too bad.
Until Stan started to "come to terms" with the "rape." Viewers were "treated," I guess, to an imaginary scenario in which Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas physically rape Indiana Jones. Two other characters had little visions like this, each one different, each one pretty graphic as far as basic cable goes, and each one just uncomfortably long. I don't mean uncomfortably long in the, "This was funny at first, now it's too long, now it's so long it's funny again" way; I mean uncomfortably long in that, "Wow, this was just umcomfortable, and now it's gone on for like an eternity and I hope there's a really good payoff." There wasn't a really good payoff. There wasn't ANY payoff. It was pretty much just three rape scenes which, I can imagine, would be pretty triggering for any survivors of rape who happen to actually like South Park. (I'm surprised it hasn't been on Feministe yet, really.)
The joke was not about how rape was bad or how rapists were terrible people, but how, even if Spielberg and Lucas are represented as evil demons, watching Indiana Jones get raped is FUNNY. But honestly, I watched it, three times, and it really really wasn't.
(To this episode's credit, the subplot about Cartman and Butters storming P. F. Chang's was fantastic and classic, "Cartman's not only a horrible racist but a total idiot" humor. That should have been the main plot, with the rape sequences being replaced with more Lifetime Movie clihes, I think.)
The Sarah Silverman Program: DOING IT RIGHT
The start of Sarah's domino effect of ridiculousness in this episode is her sister Laura's mention that she has vaguely Asian features because their Russian ancestors, ages and ages ago, were raped and pillaged by Mongolian invaders. This is not too unusual; lots of people were pillaged by Mongolians back in the day, but the silliness arises from the exaggerations in the show, as always. Sarah flashes back to her father singing a lullaby to her as a child. The last line is, in contrast to the rest of the happy song, a deathly whisper of "Your ancestors were raped by Mongolians." The ridiculousness builds up through the show, resulting in Sarah at one point screaming "rape" when her Mongolian landlords increase her rent. Jay rightfully chews her out for ever, EVER yelling rape when she wasn't in danger. Sarah, always kind of a horrible person, dismisses his arguments about "semantics" and goes on a rampage of ill-advised cartoonish crap, culminating in her purchase of a billboard with her sister's smiling face on it, declaring "Descended from a Mongolian RAPIST." The Mongolian Board of Tourism is, naturall, not pleased, and take Sarah to court. Sarah countersues for the rape of her ancestors.
The trial is where I realized the stark difference between the rape jokes in these episodes. The...prosecution? I don't know, who's the lawyer who's not working for the woman countersuing an entire country for rape? Well, whatever, the lawyer for the Mongolians produces a picture of a Russian peasant woman from, you know, way back when. She's got a long skirt and a babushka and the general frumpy look associated with "Russian peasant." The lawer presenting this picture notes that the woman's ankles are exposed, and that thusly, she is wearing the equivalent of one of Britney Spears' outifts, and so obviously, "She was asking for it."
After that, it gets a little weird and kind of loses the whole "rape" thread, so I'll wrap up. In contrast to the South Park episode, the joke here was about the attitudes toward rape, rather than the act itself. Sarah looks absurd for screaming rape about a rent increase, and buying a billboard of her sister's face with the word "RAPIST" underneath it in bold letters. The idea that a Russian peasant woman was "asking for it" by the way she dressed is patently ridiculous--as is the idea that any woman is "asking for it," ever. The idea of someone being raped isn't funny; it's how people act toward the idea of someone being raped that's funny.
I have to update my list of People Who Have Made Jokes About Rape That Have Not Made Me Incredibly Angry. It now consists of TWO people.
-Sarah Silverman (or at least the writers for her show)
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